Afghans double troops in combat

Rumsfeld sees end to fighting despite dogged resistance

March 08, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

GARDEZ, Afghanistan - B-52 bombers loosed a furious air attack yesterday on the well-fortified positions of tenacious Taliban and al-Qaida fighters as the Afghan government dispatched 1,000 reinforcements to the U.S.-led effort in the craggy, frigid peaks near the eastern border.

As the fierce battle persisted for a sixth day, the Defense Ministry in Kabul announced the infusion of soldiers, effectively doubling Afghanistan's commitment to the campaign. Near dusk, a caravan of tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbled down the main road south of the capital toward Paktia province and the high-elevation combat.

The new deployment comes on top of an additional U.S. commitment Wednesday of 300 troops - which would place about 1,200 Americans in the fray alongside 200 commandos from other Western countries. The extra forces, like the intensified bombing, appeared urgently needed. Resistance has been dogged, even fanatical.

In Washington, in describing the situation and the enemy, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said: "We do know there are very deep caves and tunnels, that they are exceedingly well dug in, that air power works to a certain extent. But they are also well supplied."

Still, he predicted results both successful and speedy: "I would think it would end sometime this weekend or next week, but one can't be sure."

B-52s, B-1s and carrier-based jets dropped 185 bombs in the past 24 hours, while AC-130 gunships and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters pounded the enemy positions, a Pentagon official said yesterday.

In Gardez, 30 miles from the warfare in the Shah-e-Kot mountains, the pounding of the distant bombs early in the day was enough to shake the windows. Afghan soldiers - recently returned from the front lines and dressed in camouflage jackets with "U.S. Army" stamped on the front pockets - described the fighting as brutal, exhausting and utterly fearsome.

"To be honest, the enemy is strong, and with all the mountains, rocks and caves, there are good places for them to hide," said Sayed Wahidullah, commander of a 40-man outfit. "They wait until you get close to the caves, then they shoot."

With only one side issuing reports from the battlefield, it was difficult to gauge the momentum of the warfare. The strength of the al-Qaida force is a matter of fluid estimation, with the numbers ranging from several hundred to a few thousand.

Yesterday at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul, U.S. military spokesman Maj. Brian Hilferty described a scenario that had the enemy surrounded in ever-shrinking patches of defensible terrain. Ridges have been taken, he said. Caves have been searched. Weapons and documents have been found.

Hilferty stated that on Wednesday alone at least 100 of the remnant Taliban and al-Qaida troops had been killed, but he offered no new word about U.S. and allied casualties. Previously, the deaths of eight Americans and three Afghans had been announced. At least 40 other Americans have been wounded, most by bullets or shrapnel. Many have been airlifted to Germany for treatment.

Resupply of the expanding allied force is a great challenge, the major said. "We are sending in by helicopter fuel, food, ammunition and other equipment," he said.

The weather was certainly of no help to such enterprises. Helicopter flights were hindered by a haze that gave the sky the look of a soapy window. By afternoon, a sandstorm stalled the bombardment.

In Gardez, the provincial capital, the atmosphere was quiet.

Commanders with knowledge of the fighting were alternately regretful about recent blunders and optimistic about the final outcome. One of them, Abdul Matin Hasankhiel, organized a news briefing, amiably agreeing to sit outside so the television cameras could capture him against a background of open spaces and rusted metal.

"The specific information is that we have now blocked all the roads that were used previously to bring in troops," he said. "I assure you the enemy is surrounded."

He then apologized for "bilateral mistakes" by the Afghan and U.S. armies, returning to the sore subject of why the strength of the opposition's forces was initially underestimated, contributing to casualties March 1.

That error was compounded when the allies failed to cut off all entry points from Pakistan, allowing Taliban and al-Qaida fighters who had earlier fled into Pakistan's tribal areas to return to take part in the battle, he said.

Now, the enemy "numbers in the thousands," Hasankhiel said.

Nevertheless, he, too, predicted a prompt victory: "I can tell you that the war will come to an end in a short time."

Among the optimists of Gardez is also the provincial governor, Taj Mohammed Wardak. "Less than a week" was his timetable for victory.

In the past few days, the governor, a U.S. citizen who recently returned to his native country after a decade in Los Angeles, has been strongly suggesting that Osama bin Laden might be making a last stand in the Paktia mountains.

While this is not a view trumpeted by the U.S. side, the governor tends to offer it with an air of knowledge and a hint of access to secret intelligence.

"I think the information will be clear when we find Osama bin Laden's body in a cave or when he comes out," Wardak said with a wink. "It is a golden chance we have."

Impatient with a display of skepticism, he then mentioned that three of bin Laden's "good friends" were known to be in the Shah-e-Kot redoubts: the military commanders Saif-ur-Rehman Mansoor, Mullah Dadaullah and Mullah Amir Khan.

"I would never say such a thing unless my information is confirmed by two or three sources," said the governor, grinning coyly.

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